Last month, the Residential Energy Rebate (RER) or the eight per cent provincial portion of the HST was removed on all home-heating products. It was a deficit-reducing measure included in the April provincial budget. Electricity rates have now been hiked by roughly 3.1 per cent.
The Progressive Conservative government introduced the eight per cent rebate in 2011 to help all homeowners, regardless of income, cope with rising electrical and heating bills when oil prices were high. Now that they have fallen considerably, the Tories claim the cost of heat and light will decrease, so the rebate is no longer needed.
But no longer needed by whom? Do those struggling to heat their homes and put food on the table no longer need the RER?
Finance Minister Ross Wiseman, who I spoke with recently, praises his government’s decision to keep the $250 home-heating rebate, paid yearly to the island’s lowest-income earners. He describes it as providing “the greatest relief.” But “the greatest relief” for whom? “The greatest relief” for those with the financial flexibility to honour their payment arrangements with Newfoundland Power without going hungry?
It provides cold comfort to those on income support or the minimum-wage part-timer who must visit a food bank or skip meals regularly, just so they won’t freeze in the dark during the coldest days of winter. It is cold comfort to the impoverished of late middle age who live in older, non-insulated homes, already faced with exorbitant heating bills and who now see even that little scrap of “relief” taken from them.
And while the RER was never a godsend, it was better than nothing.
NDP Leader Earle McCurdy has accused the Tories of making those who can least afford it pay for years of fiscal imprudence and economic mismanagement. He told me in an interview that $630 million was given in “tax reductions,” mainly to the “highest-income earners,” over a period of several years.
This year, $760 million will go to the Crown corporation Nalcor Energy, primarily for the Muskrat Falls development. The province, McCurdy says, “couldn’t afford both.” The NDP leader believes those who benefited very little, if at all, from the tax reductions will feel the brunt of the tax increases through the rise in the general HST and the elimination of the RER.
Wiseman sees it differently. He says the $630 million in tax reductions never went to the “wealthy.” They were designed, he said, to lift us out of poverty by providing “a competitive tax structure” so we could attract and retain the best and the brightest, and thereby enhance our abilities to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive labour market.
He also dismisses McCurdy’s scepticism about Muskrat Falls. Investment in Nalcor will, he said, provide us with the revenue to maintain quality health-care, educational and social programs — programs the NDP consider vital.
As well, he highlighted improvements his government has made to the province’s infrastructure and cited better conditions in our education system.
But the arguments between politicians over how the money was spent, where it was spent, what needed to be done, what should have been done, mean little to the person forced to run the thermostat on low for a maximum of 45 minutes a day and wear a coat indoors for the remainder, just to keep reasonably warm.
If the government feels it must remove the RER to help reduce a projected deficit of nearly $1.1 billion this year, then it should be removed on those who can afford it. Introduce a means test if you must, but do not inflict more hardship on those who cannot take it.
Do not inflict more pain on the person who must choose between heat and food. That person has benefited very little from any of the measures government has taken, including the poverty-reduction measures, which minister Wiseman has boasted as a “model” that other parts of the country wish to implement.
In the name of decency, give your poor a break- however small.
Pat Cullen is a journalist and community volunteer who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.